About the Book
Certain aspects of the book of Job have evoked as many interpretations as there are interpreters. Since the way we explain these points may influence our understanding of the message of the book, it might be helpful to consider some of them before proceeding. There is no agreement regarding the book's date, its place of origin, or the source of some of its parts. There is not even total agreement as to its principal theme. In fact, the richness of the book and its universal appeal prevent us from easily categorizing it. Evidence from the book itself is often given in support of a preexilic dating (seventh century BC). Job's complaints are reminiscent of the laments of Jeremiah, and some consider the book an outcry against the destruction of Jerusalem and deportation into exile. However, similarities with the theology and style of Deutero‐Isaiah (the portion of Isaiah beginning with chapter 40 ) seem to carry more weight, tipping the scale in favor of a postexilic dating (sixth to fifth century BC). It is in the postexilic period (or around 400 BC) that Satan appears as the proper name of the “evil one” (1 Chr 21, 1 ). The book of Job must have originated sometime before Chronicles, for within its pages “the satan” is still a common term that refers to an adversary in a court of justice.
Job's struggle with suffering is a universal and perennial problem, and there is much in the book that has international flavor and appeal. There were older ancient Near Eastern accounts of innocent sufferers that may have been known to the author of Job. Several characteristics of the book, such as the names and places of origin of the three visitors, suggest foreign influence and perhaps even borrowing from other sources. Still, whatever may have originated elsewhere now clearly bears the mark of Israelite theology.
Like most pieces of ancient literature, Job is a composite rather than the work of a single author. It appears to be a prose folktale ( 1, 1–2, 13; 42, 7–17 ) within which extensive poetic speeches ( 3, 1–42, 6 ) have been inserted. In the book's present form, the two parts of the folktale serve as prologue and epilogue to the speeches. Even within these speeches, we can detect units believed to have originated from someone other than the principal author: for example, the Wisdom Poem (28), the Elihu Speeches ( 32–37 ), the second Speech of the LORD (41). Regardless of when or from whom these different sections originated, they all belong to the final form, and it is this final form that has been handed down to us as sacred Scripture. Therefore we should read the book as a unified literary work.
Finally, the universal appeal of the book stems from the nature of the questions posed by the tormented Job. Who has not struggled with the dilemma of incomprehensible suffering? Who has not cried out to God: “Why?” The principal theme of the book has been variously identified as human integrity; innocent suffering; disinterested piety; human limitations and the incomprehensibility of God; ultimate trust. Actually, these interpretations are not mutually exclusive; they are interrelated. They each express a different nuance of the all‐encompassing mystery of the manner in which God is present in the world and they suggest the manner in which we should respond to that presence.
The Literary Style
Most people know the story of the innocent man who was mysteriously stricken yet remained steadfast in his loyalty and was rewarded in the end for his faithfulness. This simple understanding does not accurately represent the story; it is merely the plot of the framing folktale. The principal part of the book is the poetic dialogues. The prologue and epilogue merely set the stage and bring to conclusion the real drama. The more we understand the function of the form of the book, the better we will discover the message within it.
The dialogues consist of speeches in Hebrew poetic form. Each time Job cries out against his sorry state, Eliphaz, Bildad, or Zophar offer him counsel or attempt to convince him of his error. The orderly manner in which this exchange takes place constitutes the cycles of speeches. The third set of speeches is somewhat fragmented. Bildad's remarks are abbreviated, Zophar's are missing altogether, and Job's replies are inordinately long, often containing material that seems to contradict his basic point of view. Some scholars believe the dislocation of material that really belongs to either Bildad or Zophar explains such discrepancies, and they reconstruct the speeches in order to remedy this. Such reconstruction explains why the verses are sometimes out of numerical order in some translations.
The speeches of Elihu do not fit into any of the three cycles. While there are some differences between this Elihu section and what precedes it, the theological point of view expressed by this speaker neither fundamentally departs from nor significantly adds to that of the first three visitors. This fact has led some commentators to conclude that either the speeches are a later literary and theological addition of the original author or they are the work of another writer. This section is now part of the book, however, and cannot be discounted.
The literary form and the content of the Lord's speeches are reminiscent of an ancient Near Eastern pattern known as onomasticon (a Greek word meaning “list of names”). This was a constructed listing of names of things that had similar characteristics. This could include cosmological, meteorological, or other natural phenomena. These listings were probably prescientific attempts at classifying natural phenomena. They demonstrate the universal human search for understanding the universe. In the book of Job we find a creative use of this form. The author casts God in the role of wisdom teacher who poses challenging questions—a teaching technique typical of the wisdom tradition—that test Job's comprehension of the wonders of the universe. The content and the form of these questions are similar to the onomasticon. The use of nature as a means of instruction is characteristic of the wisdom tradition. While this technique occurs throughout the entire book, nowhere else does it have the effect that it does in these speeches. Because God does not directly address Job's demands, some commentators have concluded that God ignores Job's concerns. In saying this, they have not adequately considered the way the author makes use of this literary form.
The poetry found within the book is unlike most classical or contemporary poetry. There is virtually no rhyme, and the rhythm follows tonal patterns that are usually lost when the original Hebrew is translated. One characteristic that is identifiable even in translation is the correspondence of thought in successive half lines. This feature is known as parallelism. The thought in the first line can be repeated:
Does God pervert judgment, and does the Almighty distort justice? (Jb 8, 3 )
or contrasted (there are no clear examples of this in Job):
Hatred stirs up disputes, but love covers all offenses (Prv 10, 12 )
Pity me, pity me, O you my friends, for the hand of God has struck me! (Jb 19, 21 ).
Parallelism is used effectively in Job as an aid in furthering the arguments of the various speakers.
There are two other literary forms that should be mentioned. They are the lawsuit and the lament. Elements of these forms are found throughout the speeches of Job. Again and again he demands that God meet him in court where his (Job's) case will be tried and he will be found innocent (for example, 23, 2–4 ). Even more frequently, Job cries out to God in complaint. He laments the day of his birth ( 3, 1–10 ), and life itself ( 10, 1–7 ), and he pleads for help ( 13, 20–27 ). In all of these ways, the literary style of the author contributes to the development of the book's message.
Each section of the book has its own dynamic and carries the story forward to its conclusion. The prose prologue plays a very important role in the unfolding of the theological message of the book. It is there that Job's innocence is established beyond any doubt, and it is there that we see who is really responsible for Job's misfortune. It is God who permits this righteous man to suffer in order to test the quality of his integrity. Job never knows this, nor do his visitors. Only the reader is witness to what took place in heaven. It is important that we know this as we listen to the theological debate that follows. The arguments in the poetic speeches are repetitious and appear to be quite monotonous, but this is an essential part of the author's treatment of the problem. By adding layer upon layer of the same accusation and rebuttal, the author brings us into the very midst of the impasse. It does not take long for us to recognize the pointlessness of the debate. Job makes his claims, and his counselors make theirs. Neither side is convinced by the other. Only some manifestation from God can resolve the deadlock.
Job demands a hearing, and God does finally confront him—but in a manner that far surpasses Job's imagining. God breaks the cosmic silence and thunders through the heavens. Job had made his appeal to the justice of God. God answers Job from the midst of creative power. Even though his questions are not answered, the opposing tensions with which Job had struggled are clearly reconciled. But why? and how?
The epilogue and its last verses of prose complete the reworked folktale. Job is vindicated and, as was the rule in this ancient society when someone had been unjustly dispossessed, he is compensated for his losses by double payment. However, his question “Why” is never answered. As the book ends, all Job knows is that the innocent can indeed be afflicted for no apparent reason and with no guarantee that the reason will ever be disclosed.
While the book of Job is a poetic narrative, it is also a theological statement made up of several themes intricately interwoven. The way we understand this theology will influence the way we perceive the arguments in the book. The themes are treated here not in order of importance but as they appear in the book itself.
Reward and Punishment
As mentioned in the introduction, the theory of retribution undergirds most of the wisdom literature. It is, after all, the basis of any notion of justice. Goodness should be rewarded and evil should be punished. This theory probably originated from the experience of life itself. Actions frequently generate their own consequences. When it appears that this will not happen in the natural course of events, someone in authority steps in to see that justice is indeed done. We not only expect this to happen, we need it in order to live with a certain degree of security. The theory clearly plays an important role in the book of Job. Although Job endures insufferable loss and physical distress, his real agony seems to lie in the incomprehensibility of his situation. He has been a righteous man, and righteous people are not supposed to be so afflicted. Job's claim of righteousness is not an empty one. The author has taken great pains in the prologue to show us that Job is indeed a man of unsurpassed integrity. Then why should he have to bear the burden that, according to this theory, is the consequence of wickedness? Has God forgotten Job's faithfulness? Or, even worse, is God indifferent toward it? These are the kinds of questions at the heart of Job's dilemma.
It is quite clear that those who visit Job consider the theory of retribution a valid way of interpreting life. Since Job is suffering, he must be guilty of wrong. Since his suffering is so comprehensive and so intense, his sin must be serious. His visitors use every argument they can devise to convince Job of his error and persuade him to repent. They draw their conclusions about the morality of his behavior from the nature of his present situation. They do not question Job's suffering, and so they assume that he is guilty. (This same kind of thinking prompted the apostles to ask Jesus whether it was the sin of the blind man or of his parents that resulted in the man's blindness [see Jn 9, 21 ].) Job himself adheres to the same theory, but he makes his claims from a different point of view. He knows that he has done nothing to deserve such misfortune. Still, a strict understanding of retribution offers no other explanation for his troubles and, therefore, Job blames God. Being a man of faith, he believes that God is the architect of the order in the universe. God is the one who has made things to work as they do. Ultimately, God is the one who decides who will be rewarded and who will be punished. God usually accomplishes this through the laws that were set at creation. When they seem to fail, God can and, as the traditions of Israel claim, God does intervene to enforce justice. From Job's point of view, God has failed to do this in his case.
Since the bulk of the speeches consist of arguments in defense of or in opposition to Job's righteousness, one would think that when the LORD spoke the matter would be clarified, and we would know who was correct. When God finally does thunder from the whirlwind, the question of justice is not addressed. Instead, the focus of the divine speeches is the creative wisdom and power of God. Still, this should not be seen as avoidance of the question. Remember, in this book God is cast in the role of wisdom teacher. It is characteristic of such a teacher to ask rhetorical questions and to make reference to the natural world in order to make a point. By means of such questioning, God leads Job to see that, as there is much in nature that Job cannot understand, so there is much in human experience that is beyond him. Indirectly, God reveals the inadequacy of the theory of retribution. God shows Job that happiness and success are not demonstrable rewards for righteous living, nor are grief and failure punishment for unfaithfulness. In other words, suffering is not the sure sign of alienation from God.
The theory of retribution continues to be operative in our thinking today. When we fall upon hard times or are victims of some tragedy, we frequently ask: What have I done to deserve this? Why is God punishing me? We too have a sense of how things are supposed to work and when they don’t unfold as we expect, like Job, we demand an explanation from God. Perhaps, again like Job, we will have to learn that not everything can be explained according to the theory of retribution. We will have to admit that life is too complex to be forced into one pattern.
Once we are convinced that certain suffering is undeserved, we are faced with a very troubling question: Why does God seem to allow injustice to occur? Theodicy (from the Greek meaning “justifying God”) is the name given to our attempt to explain the problem of evil, while at the same time maintaining belief that God is a moral creator who is in control of all things and who loves those who suffer. If Job did not believe that God is moral, the question of evil would take a totally different turn. If God is not just, then Job's suffering might be equally difficult for him to bear, but it would not be the puzzle that it is. He would know that he could not depend upon God for justice. Instead, his happiness and unhappiness would hinge on the whims of a capricious God. It is clear that such a view was foreign to Israel's faith. Job's counselors never question God's integrity, and Job does so only reluctantly and at the risk of falsely accusing God.
According to another view, God could be moral but not able to control evil completely. This is the theory advanced by several post‐Holocaust Jewish thinkers who cannot explain why God allowed so many millions of innocent people to be exterminated during World War II. It is also a view expressed in the popular book by Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Although a number of recent thinkers have held this view, it is not found in the Bible. Israel believed that its God was the undisputed almighty creator (see Is 45, 7; Am 3, 6 ). None of the characters in the book of Job doubt God's control. In fact, if Job could believe that God was not somehow responsible, his torment might even be lessened.
A final perspective suggests that perhaps God is both moral and omnipotent, but unconcerned about simple people. Surely the almighty God has more important things to do than to worry about the fortunes or misfortunes of one man. The traditions of Israel contradict this notion as well. From the earliest stories of the ancestors (Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel and Leah), we see God portrayed as attentive to the most personal needs of the individual. This is the memory of God that Job recalls as he laments his present predicament ( 29, 1–6 ). How could a gracious God who cared for him in earlier years turn against him now?
Theodicy is not an issue for the visitors, since Job's misery is not a puzzle for them. Job himself is intent on defending his own integrity rather than God's, and so theodicy is not a concern of his either. It is, however, of major importance to the author of the book, who depicts God as all‐powerful and provident, and a God of unchallenged goodness. At the end of the book, the question of suffering may be left unanswered, but the integrity of God is no longer questioned.
In a very real sense, the drama of the book stems from the satan's challenge found in 1, 9 : “Is it for nothing that Job is God‐fearing?” The satan insinuates that Job is righteous because of the rewards that he now enjoys and will continue to enjoy as long as he remains faithful. He claims that it is easy for Job to be loyal to God when things are going right and he is happy with life. Take away his prosperity and the good things of life, and he will not only give up his way of integrity but will actually curse God. The reader should note that God takes the dare. Twice Job is assaulted. His initial response to the tragedy that has fallen upon him proves that the satan's accusation is groundless. Job neither curses God nor veers from his attachment to God. Despite his complete reversal of fortune, Job's confidence is not shaken, and he actually praises God (see 1, 21 and 2, 10 ).
It is clear that Job is not God‐fearing simply for the sake of blessing, for his afflictions do not diminish his devotion. Even in adversity he maintains that all things are in God's hands, and God will render whatever God deems fit. Still, Job probably did expect to be blessed for being faithful. The admonitions of his visitors as well as his own later assertions mark an expectation common to all of them (see 4, 7; 8, 20; 11, 15; 13, 16 ). All seem to believe that goodness will not go unrewarded nor will wickedness fail to be punished—a conviction that is fundamental to the notion of justice. Therefore, in the face of such expectation, to what extent is his piety really disinterested? The content of Job's laments and pleading show that Job does not look for recompense; he wants vindication. He is not concerned about possessions; he insists that his integrity be acknowledged. When he finally understands the lesson that God set out to teach him, he is silent and seems content with his new insights. It is apparent that the depth of Job's piety is based on his relationship with God, not on some promise of reward.
We must remember that at this time Israelites did not have a clear idea of reward or punishment in an afterlife, as Christian theology teaches. If justice was not meted out in this life, they had no hope at all for retribution. This makes Job's disinterested piety even more admirable. It also serves to challenge the quality of our own fidelity. Job's faithfulness can also be an encouragement to us. Here is a man who is not willing to accept unquestioningly what he considers a grave injustice. He rejects the instruction and counsel of those regarded as teachers of the religious tradition. Job is not blindly docile in his suffering, nor is he afraid to complain to God in his frustration. At this point we must be careful to understand Job's anger correctly. He does not argue with God because he is suffering, but because he perceives a conflict between what he considers his unwarranted suffering and his faith in the justice of God. The Job who accuses God is no less pious that the man who acknowledged, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away” ( 1, 21 ). Devout people certainly do have their differences with God. We are reminded of the great Teresa of Avila, who in frustration also complained to God, “No wonder you have so few friends.”
Although the customary way of understanding suffering was as punishment for sin, the book of Job does provide other explanations for it. The prologue itself tells us that God allowed Job's misfortunes to befall him so that Job's integrity might be tested ( 1, 11; 2, 3.5 ). A similar incident in the cycle of stories about Abraham comes to mind. There, “God put Abraham to the test” (Gn 22, 1 ) and told him to sacrifice his son Isaac. There is a significant difference here, however. In the end, Abraham was told that he had been tested (Gn 22, 16 ), while Job never knows about God's dealings with the satan. Job himself never regards his misfortune as a test.
Suffering is also seen as a source of moral discipline. Elihu claims that pain and sickness sometimes act as warnings against sin and as a defense against pride and complacency ( 33, 15–24 ). Other interpretations of suffering include: vicariously enduring the punishment of others (the Suffering Servant: Is 52, 13–53, 12 ); personal purification (Ps 66, 10 ); a necessary way of accomplishing the will of God (Joseph in Egypt: Gn 50, 20 ). Only the first two explanations are found in the book of Job.
Yet another way of understanding suffering was as the “curse of the evil deed.” According to this view, those who engage in evil infect themselves in the process. This notion is behind the saying: “He who digs a pit falls into it” (Prv 26, 27 ). Just as the Israelites had a sense that goodness was a force that determined life, so they believed that evil carried its own consequences. This view differs from that of retribution since it does not believe that God intervenes to punish. In fact, it tends to exclude divine activity. This may explain why, in Israel, the idea of retribution seldom appeared by itself. It is always tempered by belief in God's ultimate control of good and evil.
The biblical writers seem to have been more interested in the reason and purpose of suffering than in its origin. They addressed the fact of suffering and tried to give meaning to this reality, which no one can escape. They offered provisional explanations intended to strengthen people in their struggle. These explanations were not meant to be conclusive answers, because circumstances change and they might cease to be appropriate. This is precisely the case with Job. The instruction and advice offered by his visitors may very well have been fitting in other circumstances, but in Job's situation they are empty of meaning. No one seems able to offer him an adequate explanation for his suffering. Most likely, this is precisely the reason that the book of Job has always enjoyed a place of prominence in the literature of the world and in the hearts of countless people. It demonstrates that no one is protected from undeserved personal misfortunes such as the sudden and tragic death of loved ones, human exploitation or betrayal, the unexpected collapse of a business or career, or from disasters such as flooding or fire or other ravages of nature. The horrors of war, of ethnic, racial, sexual, or other social discrimination or brutality victimize untold children, women, and men, and thus defy all standards of justice. Over the centuries this pitiable man has stood as proof that suffering is not a sure sign of infidelity. Job continues to be a source of consolation for many today who suffer innocently.
Experience and Tradition
One might conclude from this that a fundamental principle, which underlies wisdom thinking and which plays an important role in the book of Job, is the relationship between experience and tradition in the formation of new theological understanding. We have all been taught the importance of conforming our lives to the teachings of our religious tradition. A new and sometimes conflicting attitude is developing today, namely, that it is the tradition that must give serious consideration to contemporary life. In fact, a more complete understanding shows that there should be a dynamic correlative interaction between experience and tradition, with each influencing and refashioning the other. In the book of Job we see that neither Job nor the men who came to advise him took note of this dynamic. In the final summary of his cause, Job insists that he has always complied with the prescriptions of the law (see chapter 31 ). In fact, he went far beyond the demands of the law. It was precisely because of the faithfulness of his behavior that he expected a life of peace and prosperity. From where he stood, there is something seriously wrong with the order of things. Job was not willing to question his own integrity, and he was not ready to challenge the tradition. That is why, as stated earlier, he found fault with God. The others also evaluated Job's life according to the tradition. Adhering to the conventional way of interpreting suffering, they insisted that his present state of misery was the direct consequence of some sin. From where they stood, God was justified in afflicting Job, and the tradition was adequate in explaining the situation. They discounted the authenticity of Job's experience of innocent suffering.
We might miss this important theme were it not for something that God said to Eliphaz in the epilogue: “… you have not spoken rightly concerning me, as has my servant Job” ( 42, 7 ). Where were these men wrong and Job right? What did they say that was not part of the traditional teaching? The only issue over which there was serious disagreement was that of Job's innocence. Job insisted that God had afflicted him without cause. Upholding an inflexible interpretation of the tradition, the visitors maintained that God would never act in such a manner. We know that they are the ones who were wrong.
Job's experience of innocent suffering calls for a new and more critical look at the tradition. It is strange that neither Job nor his counselors challenged this unbending interpretation of theology, because it is precisely the ability to be faithful yet flexible in new situations that constitutes wisdom. Perhaps the author of the book wanted to demonstrate what could happen when theology is rigidly applied.
The Catholic bishops of the United States have consciously included reflection on contemporary experience in the process of writing their most recent pastoral letters. They are keenly aware of the need to be faithful to official teaching while at the same time realistic about changes in the world. They have frequently held open hearings in order to gain insights from the experience of the broader church and society before writing their documents. This practice can both endorse new wisdom and contest the old. For that reason it has been applauded by some and criticized by others.
The God of Mystery
Most of the themes considered in this reflection have focused attention on Job. Now we turn our gaze toward the depiction of God. How is God portrayed? In his complaints, Job characterizes God as powerful and oppressive when near and unconcerned when at a distance. Job's companions describe God as a prosecuting judge. However, the image revealed in the speeches of the LORD is quite different. There we see that God is indeed powerful, but it is a wondrous, awe‐inspiring power (see 40, 3–5 ). It is also true that God is transcendent, but this does not prevent God from being solicitous for even the mountain goat about to kid (see 39, 1 ). Finally, God does not assume the role of judge, summoning Job before the divine tribunal, there to find him guilty and to sentence him. Instead, Job is questioned by the divine teacher and led to new horizons of insight. He is brought to understand that he has been treading on mystery—“things too wonderful for me” ( 42, 3 ). In the book of Job, God is the provident but nonetheless mysterious God of creation. It is the same God who works in the lives of each of us, yet who remains a mystery.
The Dramatic Effect of the Story
While it is true that we can dip into any section of the book of Job and draw out bits of profound teaching, the best way to read it is as a drama from beginning to end. Only in that way can we feel the frustration of the counselors mount and the desperation of Job deepen. As is the case in every good story, there is a dramatic movement here that sweeps us up into itself. We might best appreciate the richness of its message and the true‐to‐life description of its complexity by identifying first with Job and then with one of the visitors. Our own experience of suffering should help us to understand Job's plight. It is revealing, however, to realize how easy it is to offer empty words in our sincere attempts to console others, and to see how quickly we can become indignant when our advice is ignored.
The final effect of reading the book in this way includes an admission of the incomprehensibility of much of life. Whether we have identified with Job or with one of the others, we come to the speeches of the LORD and we realize that no one can answer the questions put to Job. Everyone, whether Job, Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, Elihu, or the reader, when confronted with the incongruity and incomprehensibility of human life, stands silent before this transcendent God.